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Chapter 11: Authenticity and The Zellers Paradox

I’d like to point out an irony in this book. Let’s suppose that you apply the suggestions made and they help you reach your goals. In doing so, you may find yourself at odds with the same things that once gave you an advantage. Perhaps you’ll transform from a passionate, hands-on company with a staff of six, into a cross-country franchise. This may leave you hard-pressed to maintain the same attributes that got people to love you in the first place.

While I’d like to write a tell-all passage relating to how one might address just that, I think the task may be too great. The one thing I will contemplate is this slippery topic of authenticity. It’s a tough perception to achieve, maintain, and in some ways even understand.

Everything in the marketplace is fabricated

Many answers for your brand can be found by reflecting candidly on whom you are; likewise, I think the best method of ensuring consistent relations with your customers is to act ethically. On the other hand, I do struggle around these notions of truth and authenticity. Some great businesses are good at just seeming authentic.

Häagen-Dazs, for example, elicits sensations of a hundred-year-old Scandinavian ice-cream maker with a long legacy of craft. Their product occupies the “super-premium” category and is available in 50 countries worldwide. While few dispute the quality of the product, the associations suggested in its evocative name, are more exotic than their actual roots. Häagen-Dazs is in fact an American brand founded in the Bronx in 1961 by Reuben and Rose Mattus. The name came to be as a result of Reuben “riffing” on the Duncan Hines name in faux-Danish.69 Yet, the moniker has become legendary and this conceivably helps justify the premium pricing, given that it appears to be an “imported” product. Incidentally, Häagen-Dazs is now owned by The Pillsbury Company.

Similarly, the Burberry fashion brand could easily be perceived as being born of luxury. They are positioned amongst other luxury brands and rely on advertising that suggests they represent a modern day aristocracy of sorts. (Seemingly this new upper class is largely comprised of waif-like men and women with highly pronounced cheekbones.) This defies the company’s more utilitarian beginnings.

Thomas Burberry did invent gabardine, but it was intended as a hardy fabric for outdoor wear. His trench coat was actually fashioned for military use. In contrast to the high-wheeling lifestyle currently portrayed by the brand, Burberry himself was an anti-alcohol crusader with modest interests. His obituary in the Daily News read, “Mr. Burberry cared for little outside his business except temperance, religion and agriculture, and he never read novels.”70 Hardly a description fit for the high-flying founder we might have imagined.

Or consider Captain Morgan Spiced Rum: the seventh largest brand of spirits worldwide, recognized for its tagline, “Got a little Captain in You?” This mascot crafted for the brand seems jolly and fun, in spite of its mildly sinister expression. Few of us would have likely chosen to hang out with the “Captain”. The brand took its moniker from Welshman Henry Morgan, a privateer (pirate) known for “bloodthirsty” attacks in the Caribbean.71 Although the man was real, he had little to do with the company, which was originally a distillery called Long Pond that was purchased from the Jamaican government by Seagram Company in 1944. It’s hypothesized that the real Captain died from liver failure due to his enjoyment of “the sauce.”

Does it matter?

I question if we might all confuse the notion of authenticity and that of originality. While originality relates to the beginning of something, authenticity is a characteristic of something that is true to its origins and sincere. The issue then comes down to which origins we remain true to.

Just think of those things that we hold up as American icons. What’s more American than Budweiser, the “King of Beers”? Actually a fair number of things. The Budweiser name actually means “From Budweis,” with Budweis being a city in Bohemia (now called České Budějovice). The ownership of Budweiser? Belgian—they’re a part of Anheuser-Busch. It doesn’t end there. Church’s Chicken is owned by Bahrainis, 7-Eleven by the Japanese, and The Chicago Skyway by an Australian-Spanish consortium.72 Hate to break it to you, but even “as American as apple pie” is a bit of a myth. This icon’s recipe dates back to 14th Century England.73 Apple trees weren’t even to be found in the Americas until the early 1600s.

Does knowing this make apple pie feel any less American? Do the not-so-exotic origins of the Häagen-Dazs’ name result in their ice-cream tasting any less delicious? Should the pious nature of Burberry’s founder make their current fashions seem any less luxurious? Probably not, and I believe there are two reasons for this. First, by crafting and repeating these myths, we’ve come to believe in them. It seems that even belief proven to be ill informed is hard to shake. Once those neural pathways are formed, it’s very hard to rewire these associations. Secondly, it can be argued that a brand, expression or idea really only needs to be true to itself.

Authentic mashups

Consider Andy Warhol’s silk-screened paintings of Campell’s soup cans. Warhol didn’t invent the soup can, and he certainly wasn’t creating these images for the soup company. No, he re-imagined a banal household item as a work of high art. Although Warhol begins with a commercial representation, the end product is something altogether different from that which first informed his work. The soup can paintings, car crash representations, and posterized images of celebrities all became part of what Warhol was. He didn’t need to replicate, or be true to, the subject matter he started from in any subsequent work (i.e., the soup cans or Brillo boxes). He just needed to be authentically “Warhol.”

DJ Z-Trip and DJ P are the respective monikers of mashup artists Zach Sciacca and Danny J. Phillips. Mashups are new creations (art, music, videos, software) comprised of two or more existing works. Their collaboration Uneasy Listening, Vol. 1 was released in short supply in 2001 and went on to critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone, Spin, URB and the New York Times.74 You can hear it for yourself on DJ Z-Trip’s website:

As you listen to it—and you should—you’ll hear something quite unique from anything you’ve ever heard before. Seamlessly, they bring together diverse and seemingly unrelated sounds, artists, and songs. For example, Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy stitches together with Pink Floyd’s Run Like Hell. Dialogue from Star Wars leads to Tears for Fears’ Woman in Chains. Along the way, we hear the Macintosh system voice, The Beastie Boys, Pat Benetar, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ratt. It’s a rather weird experience, as you find yourself drawn in to familiar melodies, completely reinterpreted.

Listening to this “construction” is a little like traveling through a musical stream of consciousness. There are mellow passages, energetic ones, and a few points that are simply unexpected. Sampling from so many artists results in a completely new work. Do DJ Z-Trip and DJ P “owe” their new creation to these ingredients? Most wouldn’t think so; we’ve come to believe that such works constitute wholly new creations. From an authenticity standpoint then, are DJ Z-Trip and DJ P limited to using the same samples indefinitely? Hardly! They can take inspiration from wherever they wish. Their creation is of their own devising and, once again, they only need to remain authentic to themselves.

The perception of their authenticity could be shaken should one of them choose to write bubblegum pop songs for Top 40 radio. That wouldn’t seem like the DJ Z-Trip and DJ P we’ve come to know. Similarly, by having their music tied to commercials for a brand like Puppy Chow, they might risk coming under scrutiny. Listeners aren’t as concerned with their influences as they are in receiving what the artists have promised. This kind of promise isn’t necessarily a verbal one, but instead the result of a relationship formed over years. With each creation and element of communication, a dialogue is established; breaking from this could cause loyalists to feel as though the group’s authenticity has been compromised.

Can we bring this discussion back to the topic of brands, please?

Let’s apply this same train of thought to a company like Starbucks. When Howard Schultz took his sojourn in Italy and saw how the coffee bars were a culture unto themselves, he saw an opportunity for America. It’s unlikely that he believed he’d create exactly this experience back home, but he was clearly influenced by what he saw. This is comparable to how Warhol was informed by popular culture. From that day in April 1984, when Starbucks first started publicly experimenting with the sale of coffee beverages, they began a dialogue and made certain promises to each of their customers.

Few would criticize Starbucks for losing its connection to the Italian coffee bar, just like few would call out DJ Z-Trip and DJ P if they never included another ‘80s sample in a collaboration. The work these artists created was something unto itself just like Starbucks is. Most people probably aren’t even aware of Schultz’s travels in Italy and his enamorment with espresso culture; so, why would they disapprove of how inaccurately it is reflected? Nevertheless, Starbucks has struggled with authenticity.

I suspect that you love the smell of freshly brewed coffee as much as I do. In the fall of 2006, customers walked into Starbucks to find this seductive aroma overpowered by the displeasing smell of the company’s new breakfast sandwiches. Many voiced their disapproval of the addition quite loudly.75 (Later the recipe was changed to reduce said smelliness.) Off-brand additions like these chip away at Starbucks’ authenticity to itself. When Schultz once again took the role of President and CEO in January 2008 his effort to regain the romance they once had afforded customers had everything to do with the Starbucks they had once been. Authenticity isn’t limited to what influenced you, but instead relates to who you promised to be.

What should be worrisome to Starbucks is not what first informed them, but rather the promise made to patrons. Growing too fast by seemingly infecting every suburban mini-mall has compromised what the brand seemed to once stand for. As Bill Breen notes, “Playing the authenticity game in a sophisticated way has become a requirement for every marketer, because the opposite of real isn’t fake—it’s cynicism. When a brand asserts authenticity in a clumsy way, it quickly breeds distrust or, at the very least, disinterest.”76

Perpetuating the myths

A company’s actions and voice create a mythology of sorts. We associate stories with organizations. These become powerful and difficult to change. It’s important that your organization speaks and acts in a fashion that is consistent and appropriate. You can brand yourself in almost any way you’d like, but when customers receive signals that don’t harmonize with the brand, they start to question the brand’s authenticity. Think of a well groomed fellow walking into your office in an Armani suit, cuff links, elegant shirt and tie… and a pair of grubby, stained sneakers. It wouldn’t matter that everything else was perfect; we’d only see those sneakers, and they’d shake our perception of this individual.

When McDonald’s starts to sell salads, they don’t immediately transform into a “healthy” restaurant. That message feels wrong and is off-brand. Actually, it’s worse than that as doing so leads us to ask how bad their other foods are. We all suspect that eating there isn’t good for us. Therefore, most of us limit how much we go. McDonald’s shouldn’t try to be something it isn’t. It just has to be an authentic indulgence. Lots of us have the occasional scotch, vodka, or gin, full well knowing that we’re not drinking wheatgrass. That doesn’t mean that Johnnie Walker should create a “Healthy Choices” scotch.

Brands that deviate from the dialogue they’ve established with followers, loyalists, and customers risk alienating those who’ve helped them maintain their mythology. This is worrisome, as it can happen quickly and be very damaging. If you’re skilled—and lucky—enough to get people to care about your brand, you’ll find yourself with a great responsibility on your hands. You’ll need to ensure that you keep the contract you’ve made with these people. Not doing so could cost you all the loyalty you’ve worked so hard to build.

The Zellers Paradox

For a short period in the late ‘80s, I became rather enamored with skateboarding. It only took a couple of hard falls for me to rethink this fantasy. At the time, though, I’d thumb through magazines like Transworld Skateboarding and Thrasher, examining a culture that was foreign to me. I particularly remember the irreverent and sometimes cryptic ads from brands like No Fear, Vans, and Airwalk. They were so different from what I’d seen before that I didn’t know how to interpret them. It was clearly a culture of its own, and I admired that.

Airwalk shoe designs were playful, featuring wild patterns and bold colors. While most teenagers were wearing high tops, Airwalks were mostly worn by those in the skate/surf community. By the mid-‘90s—long after I had abandoned skateboarding—I noticed a proliferation of Airwalk shoes and garments appearing in the mainstream. Even though I had never really been a part of skate culture this seemed odd to me.

As skateboard culture moved into the mainstream, they expanded beyond skate shoes and made their products available in chain stores like Zellers: a bargain department store in Canada. Shannon McMahon examines the implications of having done so, in her article “Skating to the top.” She notes how “...skateboarders shunned the company for dipping too deep into the mainstream.”77 Brand loyalty eroded and the company eventually declared bankruptcy.

By 2004, Airwalk was acquired by Collective Licensing International who purportedly planned to return the brand to its roots. Admirable as that goal may be, it’s optimistic. Part of skateboarding’s—and ostensibly Airwalk’s—original draw related to how it connected with a particular segment of youth counterculture. In once forsaking this to reach a less select market (e.g., suburban kids’ soccer moms), the company sacrificed its authenticity. I doubt the Airwalk brand will ever regain the cachet it once had.

Many of us start a company and struggle just to keep it afloat, dreaming of someday (maybe) taking a holiday. We ask our friends to try our products, hound the press for interest, and sometimes even beg for attention. By the time that we reach a modest level of success, most are so tired that it’s hard to even feign the love we once had for it. Think pizza: I love pizza and at times have eaten it three times a day. But, if I ran a pizzeria for ten years, I’d probably feel quite differently. Making pizza, talking about pizza, selling pizza, promoting pizza, washing pizza dishes, smelling like pizza… I’d probably never want to touch a slice again.

The customers wouldn’t know this. They’d come into the pizzeria loving our market fresh ingredients, unorthodox toppings, clever names, and the vibe of the place. It builds up a following and people start to talk. Some begin to feel like this is their own little place, and we get to know patrons by name. As word spreads we find ourselves able to add a few extra locations.

This gets covered in the local business media, and soon an investor asks to franchise the shop and license the name for a line of frozen pizzas for grocery stores. This proposition might be awfully tempting. Money would help modernize, add better training programs, increase consistency, and even afford funds for advertising. Plus, after so many years of hard work, some money and the possibility of a day off would be nice. Who would say “no”?

Suppose I did accept; things would change. New staff members would be added and probably not remember all of the customers’ names. Some special items that regulars loved would be removed from our menu to focus on more popular and profitable ones. Those who thought of this as “their” place might find themselves without a seat on busy nights. The loyalists could very well feel displaced and start looking for a new place to call home. “You know, Eric’s was such a great pizzeria, but it’s no fun any more. I even saw one in the Dallas airport last week. It’s just not the same.” This is the Zellers Paradox: small brands that gain mainstream attention often find their authenticity compromised and seemingly impossible to maintain in the eyes of the public.

Everyone wants it first

Many of us like to think of ourselves as modern day explorers of sorts. We revel in the discovery of something new, and even feel a little special when we introduce less-knowing peers to these finds. Brands benefit by having such advocates spread the word for them, but this romance can be short-lived. Few want to be late to the party. This means early adopters are quick to move to another thing, once word travels, and their discovery is relegated to the mainstream.

Few would admit to becoming a fan of the grunge phenomenon Nirvana after the band achieved mass awareness as no one wants to jump on a bandwagon. Many of us got excited about the band sometime around 1991, and they subsequently moved from the fringes to the spotlight. The band shouldn’t be blamed for this. They didn’t change, or do anything differently after success than before. They were just caught in a wave bigger than themselves.

What did change was how we felt about something we liked becoming the “flavor of the year.” Few want to talk about the same band that their kid brother/sister is raving about. No, we like thinking that we’re special, and that sensation is compromised when the masses come knocking. This forms a curious paradox: we find a great band and complain that no one appreciates them, only to have them later gain mass appeal. At this point we find our ownership somehow negated and seek out something that appears less tainted.

When a person champions a product in limited supply, their experience with it is more personal. By investing time, energy, and effort into a brand, they tend to feel like it’s theirs. This can result in some becoming evangelists for your offering. Should the same product become available in bulk at chain stores, a sense of betrayal may arise. Those who invested in the brand early on may feel as though a connection has been eroded, even if you’ve done nothing to augment this relationship. They may feel a loss of sorts as they witness this personally significant product, service, or place reduced to a commodity.

Careful what you wish for

Should your small company grow, you will experience this. You’ll change and your customers will feel it. No matter how hard you try, people will start to question your authenticity and whether you’ve changed for the worse. I can’t offer a steadfast way to combat this. My one suggestion is that you try to “think small” even as you grow. You can’t control how others speak about your company, but you can work to reinforce the values and experience that you promised from the beginning. Do whatever you can to avoid becoming seen as a bland commodity that is available everywhere and to everyone.


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